Posts from May 2016
May 20th, 2016
I’ve come to expect jaw-dropping moments in paleo-conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, magazines that mistake blind cultural atavism for actual conservatism and end up actively praising a wide array of things any 1960 conservative would have considered appalling. But every so often, I stumble across a true whopper neatly folded into something as seemingly innocuous as a book review, and that happened this week.
I was reading the book reviews in the May 23rd issue when I came to one written by a reviewer with the Dickensian name of Barton Swaim. The piece was a review of The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge, a study of the theology and literary history of the central event in Christian religion. I raised an eyebrow when Swaim referred to Rutledge’s prose as “winsome” – I’d bet a whole bunch of bananas that Swaim would never use such a word to describe the prose of a man, but I’ve been reading this kind of magazine for a long time … their casual institutional racism and sexism doesn’t really slow me down much anymore. I had no idea the main show was coming up.
Swaim goes on to characterize the nature of modern academic Biblical exegesis in fairly accurate terms, recounting how that exegesis studies the history and provenance of documents and literary traditions and tends to do so in non-theological terms. That is, miracle stories about cured lepers and wrestling angels are to be studied as cultural artifacts rather than eyewitness accounts – and that eyewitness accounts purporting to see such things are, in the mildest reading, simply incorrect.
But then, astonishingly, Swaim indulges in a digression that makes it clear he’s tired of such scholarly pussy-footing:
On may approve or disapprove of that premise, and critical scholars themselves have found ways to treat texts as in some sense “sacred” without treating them as inerrant or even as divine revelation. But that has long been the de facto governing assumption behind critical exegesis of biblical texts. The trouble is that, from any point of view, it’s boring. The biblical writings purport to tell us what God is like and how man can know him. All critical scholars are ever going to tell us is who wrote (or didn’t write) which books and what sort of half-baked primitive ideas underlay their composition. That may be fine for desiccated scholarly monographs, but it will not sustain anyone’s faith or motivate anyone to works of mercy.
He makes it clear that he’s very grateful for the “growing number of liberal scholars” who are insisting on “interpreting biblical texts on those texts’ own terms” – meaning, on the terms of those texts being true and divinely-inspired dictations from a supernatural being. He’s happy for the growing number of scholars who are dispensing with the writing of “desiccated scholarly monographs” that merely chase down trivia about textual composition and literary influence and instead getting down to the real business of writing about just exactly how the demigod son of Yahweh took on mortal flesh and was crucified in accordance with ancient prophecy. Because come on – deep down, we all KNOW it really happened, right? Interpreting the these 2000-year-old Middle Eastern texts any other way would be boring, right?
Jaw-dropping, as I mentioned. Barton Swaim (and maybe the winsome Fleming Rutledge? The review doesn’t make it completely clear, and alas, I haven’t read the book) would really appreciate it if Biblical scholars would stop messing around writing “desiccated” studies that treat the Bible as just another ancient text – after all, the purpose of such scholarship isn’t to inquire into the past, it’s to sustain everybody’s religious faith.
It took me a while to realize I’d really read this kind of 15th-century stupid dogmatism in a 21st century publication, and then I was mainly just embarrassed for Fleming Rutledge. For myself, I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the ages when you could only write about the Bible by first fearfully professing your personal belief in the truth of all its fairy tales. Give me boring old responsible scholarship any day.
April 28th, 2016
As I’ve noted in the past here at Stevereads, I take a peculiar interest in the slight but often fascinating book-coverage you can find in the “lad mags” like Esquire or Men’s Journal or GQ. It’s always strange to me, the efforts the editors of these magazines (arrogant SOBs almost to a man) to find some way, any way, to make books feel interesting or relevant to their target demographic of swaggering, over-monied, pea-brained 20-something business drones. Magazines like Esquire and GQ know that demographic’s stupidity and biddability to the last decimal place, which is why these are some of the only major magazines still in circulation in the West that feature both embarrassing objectification of women and page after page of adds for cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
Books are always going to be a strange element to add to such a brainless bro-centric mess, so I girded myself when I recently encountered a short feature in Esquire called “The New Books for Men” by Benjamin Percy, an egregiously overpraised young writer who here comes up with a list of books that have spoken to him in various ways as he’s ripened into the wise old guy he is today (according to Wikipedia, Percy is well shy of his 40th birthday). I went in hoping for one person’s account of what reading has meant to him, but Percy takes hardly any time before he’s made things a good deal more ponderous than that:
The older I get, the more I read to upset and challenge the man I’ve actually become. Reading is now less aspirational and more instructional. I cracked open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at eactly the right time: the year my son almost died … The Road may take place in a postapocalyptic wasteland, but ultimately it’s a story about fathers and sons, about the terror of keeping your children safe from harm and teaching them to protect themselves in a world that sometimes seems bent on ruining them. The book helped me better understand and manage my own fears and sense of responsibility.
It should almost be needless to say that going to novels for “instructional” reasons is fundamentally wrong-headed. It reduces not only the novel but the novel’s readers. What, after all, according to Percy’s view here, happens to the readers who come to (sorry, “crack open,” like a brewski) The Road without having their young sons in the hospital? (Not even delving into the fact that The Road can somehow be enjoyed on a visceral level even by women – in the view Percy puts forward in this piece, women not only don’t read but can’t read) Percy goes through a list of books in a similar vein, each one named in conjunction with some nuts-and-bolts life lesson to which it can give operating instructions. Every work named (all popularly well-regarded; the list of titles alone pretty clearly hints that Percy doesn’t himself read books, ever, if he can help it) is given a narrow, one-topic point, a precise life-problem it can solve once its bro-reader picks it up, gropes it open, and begins mouthing its words to himself. And all of it is designed not as an end in itself but rather as one more notch on the money-clip of the World’s Most Interesting Man:
You look back on your life and the books you’ve read and you know you’re better off for having a large and varied and sometimes uncomfortable appetite for experience, for having lived widely, strenuously. Getting upset, leaving behind what’s familiar: That’s the point. The most interesting guy at the party isn’t the one who only surrounds himself with friends.
Whenever I come across a short piece like this in a lad-mag, I always feel a split reaction: on the one hand, I’m happy to see any mention of books in pages full of ads for $85,000 wrist watches and “recreational” products with a hundred-year record of causing lung cancer. But on the other hand, it’s irritating to see books and reading so smugly simplified – here’s how this Tolstoy guy helped me to play some catch with my dad – it’s the intellectual equivalent of strip-mining, and it’s depressing to think of all the young money-bros out there who’ll encounter Percy’s article and think reading William Styron or T. H. White is some kind of highbrow close equivalent to figuring out a sheet of IKEA instructions; “I’ve got a boss who’s absolutely obsessed with our quarterly reports … I better crack open this “Moby-Dick” book …”
But I’ll hold out a bit of stubborn hope anyway. Maybe next month’s issue of Outside …
April 3rd, 2016
As I’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads, it’s always a pleasure for me to see a glossy square-bound lad-mag divert from quick-ab workouts and $35,000 wristwatches to talk about some of the less venal elements of what goes into making a well-rounded person. The most vulnerable of those elements is of course the gentle art of reading, so it’s usually a distinct treat when a magazine like Esquire or Men’s Journal runs a short piece on the added value that your average bro can get from your above-average book.
The latest GQ (the one with a picture of a very old Clint Eastwood on the cover) has just such a feature: “21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of (Championed by 21 Writers You Have).” Naturally, such a feature isn’t really going to present me with 21 books I’ve never heard of, but the title promises some off-the-beaten-path choices, and the feature delivers.
We get Ben Fountain praising Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, for instance, and we get Hanya Yanagihara recommending, oddly and delightfully, My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Wells Tower calls G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page “a work of seaweed, heart, and waves that break on granite” (true enough, especially in how it reflects the thing’s readability). TC Boyle puts forward Denis Johnson’s great slim novel Fiskadoro, and A. O. Scott, bless his hitherto-inconspicuous heart, praises Mary McCarthy’s great novel The Groves of Academe while not actually talking about it all, and Marlon James singles out Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker (and pays the simple readerly respect we all must pay: “if it wasn’t for Salman Rushdie, I would never have heard of it”).
It’s true that the otherwise-trustworthy Emma Straub recommends the dreadful Stoner by John Williams, but we also get some of our best working novelists making cases for books they think are underappreciated: George Saunders writes about American Youth by Phil LaMarche, Junot Diaz praises The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and the great Adam Johnson recommends Robert O’Connor’s terrific novel Buffalo Soldiers.
In fact, there was hardly any fault to lay at the door of the feature’s editors, who assembled a very thought-provoking mixture of lesser-known books and interesting recommenders. No, the fault came from the emphysema sandwich-buns that encased the feature: the last page of the magazine before the feature started and the first page after it ended – the absolutely inescapable brackets of the thing – were both full-page color ads for tobacco products, just exactly like this was a 1956 issue of GQ rather than a 2016 issue. One of the ads was for chewing tobacco, and the other was for super-sexy cigarettes, and in both cases, there were federally-mandated warning boxes telling readers that chewing tobacco isn’t a “safe” alternative to smoking, and that cigarettes contain elevated levels of carbon monoxide. No mention made of the fact that in studies not heavily subsidized by the tobacco industry, the data shows that fully 100% of idiots who use chewing tobacco develop tooth-rot and mouth cancer, and that fully 100% of idiots who smoke develop emphysema and lung cancer. No exceptions, unless the tobacco industry is paying for them outright. The ads instead offer only the very mildest finger-shaking admonitions – X isn’t safe, Y contains carbon monoxide – instead of This product will give you cancer.
And just as an editorial team was responsible for the quality of that “21 Brilliant Books” feature, so too is there responsibility for the ads that bracketed it: Jim Nelson is the Editor-in-Chief of GQ, which means that in order for those ads – extolling the cool-factor of weaponized tobacco, for Christ’s sake, in 2016, for Christ’s sake, when the science of how absolutely lethal this crap is has been settled for seventy years – to appear in the magazine, he either had to approve of them or else not quit his job because of them. So either Editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson wants GQ readers to get addicted to carcinogens in order to keep his ad-revenues flowing, or he’s too spineless to take a principled stand against it.
Either is despicable, and especially so in this case because there’s already a long-cultivated association (carefully encouraged by the tobacco industry) between being a writer and ingesting vast amounts of carcinogens. Thanks to the placement of these ads, that association will only be strengthened in the minds of the biddable young twentysomething men who are such a key component of GQ‘s audience. I’ll just have to hope that the ones who are smart enough to want to read some of these books are also smart enough to avoid the evil fate to which Jim Nelson wants to condemn them.
February 28th, 2016
Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise impossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.
Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:
I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.
And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:
Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.
This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the penultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.
His short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:
Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.
This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.
And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!
February 24th, 2016
One of my newer magazine subscriptions is The Nature Conservancy, published by the deep-pocketed conservation group of the same name. The magazine is slightly oddly-sized, and it’s full of great nature photography, and the small handful of issues I’ve read regularly so far have impressed me with the breadth and sensitivity of their prose. The feature-length articles are as good as anything I find in my beloved National Geographic, although in the latest issue to reach me, even those feature-length articles were beat out by a bright little feature called “Writers by Nature.”
With text by Amanda Fiegl and wonderful color illustrations by Stan Fellows, the piece highlights some of the great writing that’s been inspired by lands protected and upkept by the Nature Conservancy, from the California mountains of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to the Adirondacks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Nebraska prairie of Willa Cather’s My Antonia to the ponds of Maine that are immortalized in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea:
Here were creatures so exquisitely fashioned that they seemed unreal, their beauty too fragile to exist in a world of crushing force. Yet every detail was functionally useful, every stalk and hydranth and petal-like tentacle fashioned for dealing with the realities of existence. I knew that they were merely waiting, in that moment of the tide’s ebbing, for the return of the sea.
Fiegl includes other writers, figures like Wallace Stegner, TC Boyle, and of course Annie Dillard and her Blue Ridge Mountains, and she adds a few poets as well. And that’s it – no great page-length, just a rest point in between the issue’s bigger articles. But I loved it, and I’m coming to expect such grace notes in every issue. It’s certainly nice when some corner of the Penny Press does nothing more controversial than simply convert me into a fan!
February 11th, 2016
Fortunately, no matter how frustrating or confusing the Penny Press is on any given week, we’ll always still have the beacon of clarity that is high fashion.
February 11th, 2016
The latest issue of Vanity Fair had an amusing little one-page squib that managed to provoke in me an old and often-provoked reaction. The piece, called “Unsung Superheroes,” is written by Scott Jacobson, Mike Sacks, and Ted Travelstead (don’t ask me why – the thing is 300 not particularly taxing words long; I have no idea why it required even one credited stoned author, let alone three credited stoned authors), with an accompanying illustration by the great Zohar Lazar, and it presents readers with a lineup of D-rate superheroes to complement the A-list teams those readers have been seeing in movie theaters for a decade now.
There are characters like “The Bean Counter,” “Pop-Uppity,” “Mud-Slinger,” and, a hero who could have come in handy elsewhere in this issue, “Grammar Girl”:
Swoops in to save the day whenever frightened townsfolk desperately need to know who vs whom, that vs which, and just plain right vs wrong. Her modifiers never dangle and her voice is never passive. She has just the right effect. Or affect. She’ll tell you.
And why, you might ask, would a space-filling trifle such as this provoke any kind of reaction in me? Well, it’s a long story – nearly 25 years long, in fact – and I feel this same reaction whenever I see a D-list team of losers trotted out into the spotlight: I flash back to 1993.
Specifically, to Legion of Super-Heroes #49, written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum and drawn by Stuart Immonen. In that issue, stalwart Legionnaire Tenzil Kem, code-named Matter-Eater Lad (that’s his superpower, for those of you not up on your bits of Legion lore: he can eat anything), is on the planet Tartarus and preparing to face the dictator Evillo with a hastily-recruited band of local D-list superheroes, including Policy Pam, whose superpower is the ability to sell insurance to anybody, at any time, Echo-Chamber Chet, who loudly echoes everything that’s said to him, and my personal favorite, Spaceopoly Lad, who’s superpower is the ability to finish every game of Spaceopoly he starts.
And what reaction does all this provoke in me, you might ask? Not nostalgia, surprisingly – back in 1993, DC Comics still had sense enough to publish new Legion of Super-Heroes comics every month, something they haven’t done now in three long years. So you might be expecting the chain of associations to go something like this: Vanity Fair‘s “Unsung Superheroes” – Legion of Super-Heroes #49 – bring back the Legion!
But no – not only do I think for a second that there’s any chance of such a thing happening, but I’m not sure I’d want it to happen in the current DC continuity. No, my reaction is a far more straightforward capitalist whining: how the sprock can a quarter-century have elapsed without DC Comics dusting off and reprinting the entirety of the Keith Giffen-T&M Bierbaum era of the title, one of the best runs in the team’s entire 50-year history? Why are readers wanting to experience that run forced to grub through the single-issue boxes in the basement of their local Android’s Dungeon? Nice solid deluxe reprint volumes of these issues would sell – and they’d introduce a whole new generation of readers to the glories of one of comicdom’s grandest traditions.
All that from Pop-Uppity! Who can explain it?
February 11th, 2016
I’m always pleased when one of my beloved lad-mags pauses from its barrage of plugs for $50,000 wristwatches and full-page ads for cigarettes in order to talk about books; it’s slightly encouraging to me, that the editors of these magazines sometimes think that in addition to grotesquely expensive status-symbol gimcracks and incipient lung cancer, young men should aspire to feed their largely empty minds with some good writing.
And it’s extra-satisfying when the writing those editors single out actually is good, as was the case in the latest issue of Men’s Journal, which devotes two pages to an interview by Darren Reidy with a mighty fine writer of both fiction and nonfiction, British expat Lawrence Osborne, author of a bunch of really good books, including The Ballad of a Small Player, The Wet and the Dry, and his terrific new book Hunters in the Dark. Lawrence Osborne lives on the outskirts of Bangkok, and his instant summary of the place when Reidy asks him about it aligns perfectly with my own memories of the place:
Well, it’s fucking hot. It’s 95 into the night, so I usually work after dark. It’s cooler, and you have the beautiful sounds of frogs and cicadas. I’m in a very jungly area here – mango trees, wild peacocks. It’s not the bright lights side of Bangkok, although all of that is very close by. So I work until around 2 am, and then I go down into the seething masses and get some street food, beers. Also, it’s very feminine here. At midnight, women outnumber men three to one on the street.
I could listen to Lawrence Osborne natter on about pretty much anything, but Reidy seems to zero in on his best subject right away – drinking – and asks him about drinking in Muslim countries, getting a typically blunt response:
Absolutely, and in all Muslim countries. Go to Bahrain on the weekend, when all the Saudis drive over. It’s like Caligula’s Rome. You can spend a weekend in a five-star hotel and listen to the Arab guys trashing their rooms. It makes Vegas look like a Salvation Army hospital. And then they all have to drive back on a Sunday night. Most of them are shitfaced, and they have to wait until they’re sober. Pakistan is like that as well. There’s absolutely no moderation in the consumption of alcohol.
It’s only with the final question that the interview made me grimace a bit. Reidy follows up that great revelation about hard-drinking Saudis by … well, I’m still not sure where this twist comes from:
Why the hypocrisy?
Clearly alcohol is a symbolic thing, because 40 years ago you could drink anywhere in the Middle East, no big deal. It’s some crisis in a world dominated by seemingly Western values. But why hasn’t that same crisis happened in Japan and Thailand? In the Far East, these cultures have been able to absorb Western influence without any neurotic fallout. They feel a level of security in their own culture, or they’re indifferent. But that’s just my opinion. I’m just someone who likes to drink.
Dominated by Western values? Why hasn’t the same crisis happened in Japan? This was all pretty confusing – it’s as if neither Reidy nor Osborne is even aware of the Iranian Revolution spearheaded by illiterate sociopath Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which one maniac and a small cadre of zealots managed to drag a modern-day country back to the 8th century, managed it mainly because the men who found themselves every day in those early weeks within arm’s reach of Khomeini – men who just a month before had been enjoying their weekly New Yorker, their I Love Lucy reruns on TV, and yes, their freedom to drink – didn’t simply kill the vicious old lunatic and hope his glassy-eyed followers then came to their senses. The fact that Saudi businessmen have to travel across state lines in order to enjoy themselves has nothing to do with the “hypocrisy” Reidy mentions, and certainly nothing to do with Osborne’s vague invocation “Western values.” It’s purely because of modernity-rejecting religious fundamentalism.
But you should all still read Hunters in the Dark. No Lawrence Osborne book, in fact, should be missed.
February 11th, 2016
The latest New York Review of Books, in addition to its usual spread of great reviews of books I haven’t read – the standout this time probably being Jacob Weisberg’s “We Are Hopelessly Hooked,” a review of a spate of new books on digital media that was full of great quotes (my two favorite: “We can’t just deal with the emotional toll of brutality on the Web by toughening up. We need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity” and “Even teenagers who don’t remember a time before social media express nostalgia for life without it,” neither of which is true but both of which are well-put) – had a mini-plethora of that peculiar phenomenon of the reviewing life: pieces about books I, too, have reviewed.
I’ve mentioned these echoes before here on Stevereads; they perennially fascinate me. In 2015 I reviewed a large number of books for a large number of venues, and my pace hasn’t been too shabby in 2016 either. But encountering a review by somebody else of a book I’ve reviewed myself is nevertheless always a strange feeling, a weird cross-current of confidence and doubt. The confidence comes naturally (a little too naturally, some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues might say) – I bring to every book I read every other book I’ve read, and I’ve midwifed enough books into existence to feel no reverence for them that they don’t earn. And the doubt comes from simple realism: I’ve been lucky enough in my life to know many better readers than myself – better readers, more subtle and sensitive readers. Hell, just in the present moment, look at my OLM colleagues, as strong a collection of readers as can be found at any literary journal in the world. Such reading company teaches the value of perspective.
You encounter another critic reviewing book you yourself have already reviewed, and you just naturally ask, “Did I miss something important? Was more going on there than I knew?” And of course you also quickly assess for tactical differences: does the critic in question have more space than you did? Is he an expert on the one key subject involved? And finally, most uncomfortably, you have to ask yourself: is this just a better review than mine?
I had several such encounters in this issue of the NYRB, although some were, to put it mildly, easier than others. When Tamsin Shaw, for example, reviewed a bunch of books on human psychology and not only included Steven Pinker’s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature but called it “extremely influential,” I can just instantly give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s never actually read the book, in which Pinker tortures enough statistics to come with a straight face to the conclusion that mankind is getting less violent as time goes on. I was first flabbergasted and then enraged by this book (it featured prominently on my Year’s Worst list that year), and I’d be dismayed to think it was having any influence on anything. I’m going to hope Shaw is wrong about that.
Equally easy was the quick mention Elizabeth Drew made of Jonathan Waldman’s Rust: The Longest War in an omnibus review she did of a slew of books on America’s crumbling infrastructure. She calls Waldman’s book “very readable,” and I concur: I liked it and would gladly re-read it this week if my copy hadn’t, you guessed it, disappeared.
It was also enjoyable to watch Eliot Weinberger grapple with two very different translations of the I Ching in his review of the recent translations by David Hinton and John Minford. I reviewed both of those translations and spent chunks of time in each case genuinely trying to understand even the smallest aspect of the venerable masterwork itself. In neither case did I undertake what Weinberger does so effectively here, a fast-paced tour of the work’s history in English-language translation, so this was a case of enjoying somebody else’s take on the books in question – or mostly enjoying it, since Weinberger breaks with his usual form by occasionally throwing up real clunkers. He says that the two translations “couldn’t be more unalike,” which is a distractingly donnish way to say they couldn’t be more different, and when he writes the line, “It is not difficult to recuperate how thrilling the arrival of the I Ching was both to the avant-gardists, who were emphasizing process over product in art, and to the anti-authoritarian counter-culturalists,” you stop listening to his historical points as soon as you hit that erroneous and downright weird use of “recuperate.” Which makes me wonder about the NYRB’s legendary cadre of copy editors.
A purer enjoyment came from reading Neal Ascherson on Their Promised Land, Ian Buruma’s gentle and glowing tribute to his grandparents. Ascherson is a terrific writer, and his opening gambit of drawing parallels between the story of Buruma’s grandparents and the family of Anne Frank never even occurred to me when I was writing my own review, and he moves his discussion very smoothly to the book itself:
It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read.
And of course it’s dicer – although not necessarily less enjoyable – when a reviewer goes easy on a book I walloped, as happens in this issue when Joseph Lelyveld reviews Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, a deeply flawed hagiography that Lelyveld calls “affectionate, sometimes gushy.” He writes quite correctly, “Not infrequently [Meacham’s] authorial distance from his subject shrinks to the vanishing point.” Which is a mighty polite way of saying Meacham lies in his book, often and enthusiastically. Lelyveld doesn’t quite accuse him of that, but for me, he makes up for his forbearance with some wonderful insights into the whole Bush clan:
More recently, the promise of yet another Bush, a prospective Bush 45, quickly flashed and then even more quickly dimmed. The latest chip off the old dynasty – George W.’s younger brother Jeb (sometimes spelled Jeb!) – hasn’t been able to keep up with the dark currents churning the party he seeks to calm and lead. There’s a spiral here. The way George W made the progenitor look good, Jeb’s campaign misfortunes have reminded some Republicans that for all his failings in office, George W was a winner.
Also in this issue were a few examples of a slightly different phenomenon, the circumstance where some other reviewer finds a way to wring an entire piece out of a book that left me flat-out uninterested. For instance, Arlene Croce does it superbly in her review of What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert’s recent history of tap-dancing – but that’s a subject for another ramble!
January 30th, 2016
It’s such a satisfying feeling, to buy the new issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, slide it into the front pocket of my battered leather satchel, and know with complete certainty that I have absolutely subway-proof reading ahead of me. Each issue of Asimov’s costs $5 – and yet for that price you get, every single month, not only industry updates, book reviews, and a column by the great Robert Silverberg, but also a first-rate science fiction anthology (usually around seven stories). And thanks to the editorial team at the magazine, these quality pickings happen month after month.
I’ve never read an issue of Asimov’s while in calm repose here at Hyde Cottage. I keep it in my bag and read it exclusively while out and about the city of Boston, traveling by bus and subway, or waiting in line at the bank or post office. It’s a peripatetic periodical for me, very much in keeping with the spirit of its namesake, who in his heyday was a champion reader-on-the-go and whole lived in the New York public transit system like a genius loci (during that heyday, the most popular photo of him showed him hailing a cab with the flat-footed imperiousness of somebody who grew up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn). The result of all this occasion-prompted use is predictable: by the time I’m ready to buy the new issue, my old issue is battered all to Hell and gone. They’re read with love and gratitude, these issues.
February’s issue had plenty of good stuff in it but two unmistakable highlights. The first was the cover story, “The Charge and the Storm” by An Owomoyela. It’s about a young human woman named Petra living as an administrator on a desolate world in a community composed of both humans and their insectile alien hosts, the Su. Some of the humans in the colony are restless at what they see as their second-class relationship to the Su, and Petra is a natural object of their attention, since although she’s smart and idealistic, she’s also deep in collaboration with the Su.
The story is packed with enough complexity and human drama to fill a novel (indeed, in 2015 I read plenty of sci-fi novels that weren’t nearly as rich as these 28 pages), and it’s paced with occasional quiet moments in which Petra pauses to think:
Here in Third Cluster, there were patterns inlaid in the floor, murals, windows: all the things the human population did to make the colony habitable. There were windows through which you could see the roiling clouds – or the battered landscape, when the clouds lifted enough that the ghostly shapes of rocks and craters could be seen. Sometimes, Petra could see vast shapes moving in the distance, not quite the way the clouds moved, and wonder if they were some echo of the vanished ecosystem the Su had clambered out of.
Sometimes, Petra wondered what the hell the Su had done to this planet.
But my favorite story in this issue is “Exceptional Forces” by Sean McMullen, a lean and superbly chiseled story about an eccentric Russian astronomer who’s at a conference in order to deliver a bombshell of a paper: his findings that Earth faces imminent invasion from the conquerors of the Andromeda galaxy. When he’s invited the hotel room of a beautiful woman, the scientist is certain she’s an assassin hired by the world’s shadowy puppet-masters to prevent him from giving a talk that might alarm the general populace out of its complacency.
At first, the woman denies his accusation. But she quickly sees he’s too smart to fool and so confesses that she is, in fact, an assassin. But something about him fascinates her despite herself, and they soon start forestalling the inevitable by swapping secrets with each other, tit for tat. He tells her about the upcoming intergalactic invasion, and she tells him she routinely has sex with her victims before killing them. As their tense banter continues, McMullen does a wonderful job of shading in the growing fascination each is feeling for the other, and he keeps the surprises coming:
“My husband is impotent. It was a botched operation for a misdiagnosed prostate condition. I still want a sex life, so I only screw people I’m about to kill.”
A highly intimate secret, the sort that would only be whispered to the dead or dying, so probably true.
“You started with the prostate specialist.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bulged.
Spontaneous reaction. So it was a real secret.
“How – I mean … Who told you that?” she demanded.
“You spoke the words botched and misdiagnosed with particular venom. I am good at picking up nuances.”
She stared at me intently. It was not a glare of hate, but the stare of a master chess player who realizes her opponent is more than a talented amateur.
Surprise, mixed with intense concentration. Splendid.
“Your turn,” she said.
The two stories happily indicate the breadth of an average issue of Asimov’s – the range from intricate and sumptuously-detailed serious concept-driven science fiction to pure pulp adrenaline. My February issue is in smudgy tatters. Time for the March issue!